Years ago I went into a store in Chinatown. It looked like a store. It had inventory like a store. The store had a retail person. But the dust on the items was years thick. It turned out that nothing was for sale. They didn't want my business. I left. So ok: it wasn't really a store. What was it? I don't know. It was a Mystery.
Thailand has lots of Mysteries. To wit:
1. Rice Bag Pants
Between growing and harvesting seasons in the Northeast Kingdom Thais come to Bangkok and get jobs driving taxis. They have no diplomacy or international skills, no multi language skills, they hardly know how to drive, they can't read maps, they have no accounting or small business skills, no automotive repair skills, and they don't know where anything is. On all levels they are not qualified for the jobs. In other words, except for the residents of Thai insane asylums, and the hill tribe women wearing hats with dangling silver coins; according to any business plan, skill set, or human resources parameters that you would care to apply: these are the LEAST qualified people in the Kingdom to be taxi drivers. If I were running a bakery I would want to hire people that had experience baking. If I ran an airline I would want to hire pilots that knew how to fly. And if I owned a fleet of taxis in Bangkok I would want to employ people who were qualified to be taxi drivers.
Things are different in Thailand. If I showed up with a degree from the Wharton School of Business thus ensuring that the end of the day cash and receipts would be correct, and a diploma from the London School for Taxi drivers, and a Medical degree thus ensuring that I could take care of any medical emergencies, and a certificate in Automotive Technology from a German auto plant, fluency in eight Asian and Western languages, 20/20 vision, and I had a GPS device surgically attached to my head thus ensuring that I would never get lost: I would not get the job. But let some up country whiskey breath wonder walk in wearing broken strap straw sandals, and rice bag pants held up with a tree root for a belt, and the owner of the taxi company nearly throws his shoulder out of joint tossing him the keys. I don't get it. It's a Mystery.
2. Moral Nausea
Outside bars late at night there are always small children selling flowers. They are very small children. I have never ever seen one child sell one flower. Ever. But it is an iron clad rule of business that all time has value. A surgeon's time may have more value than a street urchin's time, but all time has value. So if they are not selling flowers, what are they selling? Is it the children that are for sale? I don't even want to think about it. I can't solve all of the world's problems. But now that the thought is in my head I think about it every time I pass them on the way into a bar. It used to be that they were the invisible people. Other human beings I didn't notice or had no use for. Now when I see them I sometimes want to gather them up in my arms and take them to a safe place. I want to bathe them, and clothe them, and find a protective loving social group for them. Nobody deserves to live like they do. But if I was to so much as touch one of these children I might end up in a Thai prison. No good deed by a farang goes unpunished in the LOS.
Before you accuse me of being prone to exaggeration, or melodramatic, or paranoid; consider this: they simply don't sell enough flowers to pay for their time. Please prove me wrong. I'm begging you. Please eliminate the sickening moral nausea I get when I wonder about what is going on. If the source of the revenue is the children rather than the raggedy flowers they are clutching in their little hands I can barely emotionally process the information. Something else about the Third World I would prefer not to know.
Consider this: one of the children that is blocking your way as you make your way into the Nana Entertainment Plaza might be the son or the daughter of one of the bargirls inside one of the bars. While you are chatting up one of the girls in one of the bars for some flesh for money commerce; her child might be outside doing the same thing. Can't be possible you say! No mother would ever condone, or allow, or profit from such despicable behavior you say! Wait a minute; it is possible that the Lek or Noi or Nat or An or Bee that you are watching dance around a chrome pole was sold into the flesh for money business by HER mother. And now your bargirl friend is doing the same thing with her offspring. Now how confident are you that there is no merit to this idea?
Hey, I am not sure what is really going on here. But I do know that anytime you get within fifty feet of a bar in Thailand you enter a giant spider's web of moral ambiguity and thinly veiled criminality. So what is really going on with these children outside the bars? Well, I don't know. It is a Mystery. But the next time I am in Thailand I am going to bend down and make contact with some of these little human beings and I am going to buy flowers from them. So now I am giving my change to street beggars and I am buying flowers from street urchins! Just call me a fool with my money. And with my heart!
3. Rats' Nests
If the next time you go to South Pattaya you get your eyes off the sidewalk or the girls and look up; you will see the most extraordinary rats' nests of wires on every telephone pole. Everything has been installed to last about ten minutes. Everything has been gerrymandered, and everything looks slipshod. Why these nests of wires don't spark, and burn, and explode, and jump in rainstorms is beyond me. Do the laws of electrical grounding not apply in Thailand? I'm Mystified.
4. "No ploblum"
I once got a fake tattoo from a pretty beach vendor on Krabi. Before she started I asked if we shouldn't first wipe my neck to get the salt off. That way we would get a better bond for the ink. "No ploblum," she said. Not necessary. Before my boat got back to the hotel, the tattoo (400 baht) had already smeared. The farang was right again. How could she have not known this? It's a Krabi Conundrum.
5. Thick As Fleas
There are thick as fleas touts for sexual services on Sukhumvit around Soi 11. They are aggressive, hard working, and persistent. In years of pounding the pavement in this neighborhood I have never once seen anybody respond positively. What are the economics of this? It is a money Mystery.
6. Too Scared
My first year in Thailand I am taking my first shower in Thailand in a lovely hotel in western Thailand. I look up and see the electrical box mounted on the shower wall next to the shower head. I look down at my feet standing in a pool of water. I jump out. Later the next day I go behind the building and I see the gang ground wire stop about eighteen inches from the ground. I am staggered. I haven't taken a shower in Thailand with one of these arrangements since that day. Everything about this is a Mystery. And no one can talk me out of this Mystery. I'm too scared.
Between 12:30 a.m. and closing time (usually 2:00 a.m.) old, decrepit looking guys come into the bars selling paintings. They usually have one resting on each forearm and they make the rounds of the patrons. The paintings are not even good enough to be terrible. I have never seen one patron even show an interest, let alone buy one. It would be medically impossible to be that drunk. This is a complete Mystery to me. Maybe someone can explain it.
8. Weapons Grade Plutonium
On any flight coming into Bangkok or any inter Thailand flight if there is a Chinese passenger he or she will have carry on luggage so heavy that it takes 2 to 3 people to get it up off the floor and into the overhead bin. I have been witnessing this with wonder for years. No other nationality is like this. What do they have in these bags: lead, weapons grade plutonium, ancestors, crushed cars, bars of gold? It's a Chinese Mystery.
9. Screams Freelancer
There is a woman in the Nana Hotel bar every day from four until midnight. Every day. Seven days a week. Every month. Every year. She sits at the same table and in the same chair. I only go to Thailand every six months. Every time I arrive, as I round the corner for the elevators; I see her. She gives me a note of recognition. Everything about this woman and this situation screams freelancer. She will make eyes at you.
But I have never (in years) seen her go off with someone. Hell, I have never (in years) seen her out of her chair. Twice I have approached her and chatted her up for the obvious. Nothing. So what is really going on here? I don't know. It's a Mystery.
10. Disfigured For Life
Years ago I was walking down Soi 13 in Pattaya and a girl went by riding on the back of a motorcycle. Except for her string top and her string thong bottom she was naked. Everything about her screamed SEX and she was displaying herself for the world to see. She was riding side saddle and naked.
Is she incapable of thinking five minutes or one bump in the road ahead? If she falls off she will be disfigured for life. Or worse. One of the things that separates humans from the animals is that humans can imagine a future and animals can not imagine a future. So in what category am I to place Thais? Are Thais incapable of imagining future events? It's a Mystery. God, I wish I could see her again!
11. Tree Woman
When you take elephant trips there are usually the wives of the mahouts in tree platforms selling things. The idea is that the mahout steers the elephant towards his wife and you can buy something from her. The quality of the goods sold is always high. But I have never seen one tourist buy one item from a tree woman ever. And I have taken a lot of elephant trips. What are the economics of this? Are they content to sell only one item a week? It's a Tree Woman Mystery.
12. Nothing Makes Sense
My trip to Thailand starts in Boston and then goes to Minneapolis St. Paul and then to Tokyo and then finally to Bangkok. Door to door it takes about 33 hours. I consider the Minneapolis St. Paul to Tokyo route to be the beginning of my Thai vacation experience. Invariably, the plane is stuffed with Japanese college students returning to Japan. They obey no airline rules of any kind, and no one makes them. Of course the farangs obey all the airline rules and if we don't someone makes us. Not the Japanese. Put bags in overhead bins? Forget it. Tray tables up? Forget it. Seat backs up? Forget it. Aisles and foot spaces clear? Forget it.
What am I missing here? What did not get explained to me? It's a damned Mystery. That's why I consider the Minneapolis St. Paul to Tokyo route the beginning of my Asian vacation. There are two sets of rules and nothing makes sense!
If you take a klong tour on the far side of the Chao Phraya river there are guys in boats who sit under trees for shade all day and come up to you when they see you and try to sell you things. Again, just like the nice elephant ladies in the trees; nobody ever buys anything. So how does this work? If one of these fellows sells two cans of soda a day: is that a living? I confess to being flummoxed by the whole thing. Economic theory tells you that nobody does something that does not pay. How does this pay? I've got to put this in the Klong Vendor Mystery category.
14. An Enigma
On the boardwalk wall in front of the Royal Garden Plaza in Pattaya there is always a young girl sitting there. She is 18 to 22 years old and she is always wearing a bikini top, and smoking a cigarette, and talking to her friends. She is easy to spot because she looks as if she laid on her side and a tank drove over her. Her body (and most especially her head) looks as if it has been flattened, squished sort of. Even so, she is young, fertile, and attractive. Just odd looking if you are fussy. Her body is so narrow that it is abnormal, and her head is so narrow that it is abnormal. An anatomy doctor could give the technical description.
She is ALWAYS on this wall. She has no job and there is never a boyfriend; but she exhibits all the signs of a freelancer. She'll make eyes. Twice I have hit on her. Nothing. She doesn't follow through. In years, I have never seen her leave the wall. So what is she doing? I don't know. Hey, it's not earth shattering; but we all have people in our social field of vision and in our lives we just can't figure out. She's an enigma to me. I know when I go back to Thailand in February she will still be there. Still making eyes, still smoking and talking to friends; still a Mystery to me.
15. Pig's Heads
Kanchanaburi has a big, interesting, non tourist market. You've got to look to find it. I was wandering around one day and I backed into a table behind me. I turned around and was eye to eye with a stacked table of severed pig's heads. I kind of jumped and yelped. This made the vendor ladies laugh. So we laughed about it together. I had them take my picture with the pig's heads. I had my picture taken with the ladies. If this isn't the purpose of international travel and mixing with the locals; then I don't know what is.
Out of nowhere a Thai guy arrives and starts yelling in my face: his arms are up and spittle is forming on his lips. His eyes are wide. I am now confused and frightened for my life. Why do we come to this stupid country? It's a big, big Mystery to me. The fact that I can't explain to my friends why I come here is starting to bother me.
I have only had one bargirl steal from me in all the bargirl transactions that I have had. And it was my fault. I trusted her. I'll take the blame for being a fool. She stole 1000 baht. It was our second time together. I had all of the markings of an easy, repeat customer. But she couldn't help herself. The circumstances of the theft were such that there is no way that it would go undetected. She knew by the time that she hit the street that I had found her out.
The next day she tags me in the Nana Hotel parking lot. I tell her to get lost. I don't ask to have my money returned; I just tell her to go away. She is mystified by my behavior. Absolutely dumbfounded. Perplexed. How in God's name can these girls be so stupid? It's a sad freelancer Mystery!!
17. Big Cookies
I am walking down a soi in the morning in Pattaya and I see a bunch of vendor ladies squatting in an alley getting their food orders, and their shoulder baskets ready. They've got about 100 little hamburgers already made up. The hamburgers complete with onions, lettuce, and tomatoes are so small that they look like big cookies. I have never seen anything like it before. They look neat and fun and tasty. Suddenly I decide that about four of these beauties would make a nice breakfast. So I go in the alley and offer to buy four hamburgers. I get a No. I try again. I get the head shake. They can't sell them to me. Why not? Hey, don't ask me. It's Thailand. Another perplexing, unfriendly Mystery.
18. A Curtain
The lepers, amputees, hunchbacks, begging mothers with babies, and cripples that populate Sukhumvit road plus the pedestrian overpasses from Soi 4 to Soi 11 are always there. I know intellectually that someone must pick them up and drop them off every day, but I have never actually seen this happen. They are just always there. Alright, it is not a big Mystery; but I do wonder what the rest of their lives are like. It is impossible for me to be hard hearted about them. I just can't do it. On my tired slog home every day around four in the afternoon they get all of my pocket change. Their lives on this earth are so different than mine. Their lives are a curtain I will never penetrate. Their lives will always be an ugly, sad Mystery.
19. Crotch Rocket
I rent a motorcycle in Pattaya to take Wan to the top of the hill to the temple. Because I am small and weak and can not defend myself I am always hyper alert to my surroundings. The only way I can stay out of trouble is to avoid trouble. I am also visually oriented. I notice everything. If you can catch me you have probably got me; but I've got you spotted at a 1000 yards.
Right next to our bike at the rental place is a Day Glo orange crotch rocket with blue flames. Impossible to miss! As Wan and I are putting on our helmets two Thai punks come out and get on the bike. We are knee to knee. As I pull out, they pull out. Going down the soi they are in my rear view mirror. Left on to Beach Road they are on my tail. At Walking Street I have to stop for traffic. They could have passed. They don't. Another couple of blocks and I turn right and head south. They are filling up my rear view mirror. Now we hit the hill to the temple. It is a winding zigzag slow trip to the top. They are RIGHT on my tail. What are the odds? As I pull into the parking lot they pull in right next to me. Knee to knee. Wan wants to leave the helmets but I insist we take them with us.
We go up the temple steps. I duck behind a wall and look down. Sure enough, one of the guys is trying to steal the bike. I run down yelling. Fxxx Thai prisons and fxxx this disgusting country: I just don't care. I win: they lose. They take off. If they hadn't been in my rear view mirror the whole time, and if they hadn't been so obvious their plan would have worked. How stupid do they think farangs are? How stupid are they? I actually don't even want to know the answers to these questions. Let someone else solve the Mysteries. I wonder what skiing in Geneva in February would be like this year?
20. Foot On A Form
If you look at shoes in a lot of Thai department stores the shoes are really nice but they are only made in one width. If you ask to see shoes in wider widths the retail sales professionals look confused, then frightened, then indifferent. No smiles now. Time to pull the disappearing act.
But wait a minute. It's not just me. Most rural Thais have wide feet and splayed toes from their rural upbringing. Don't all of these Thais deserve and demand shoes that fit? Apparently not. Maybe that is why so many Thais wear sandals to work: even with suits. They can't get shoes that fit in their own country. It's a riddle to me. It's hard for me to imagine anything more basic than shoes. For Christ's sake, every Medieval European village had a cobbler. You laid your foot on a form and the shoes fit. Not in Thailand. Another Mystery.
21. A Nice Girl
Because I am always a short time visitor to the Kingdom it will never be possible for me to meet and profit from meeting a nice woman. And it would not be responsible of me to pursue or encourage any meeting with a nice girl because I can't follow through. I am going home in 6 days, or in 10 days, or in 2 weeks. So if I ever do meet a nice girl in Thailand and something good happens: it will be the biggest MYSTERY of my life.
I'm still dreaming.
© Dana. All rights reserved by the author.